Engaging with Ian Nelson Jones

Ian Nelson Jones remembers what it was like to be an arts-loving teenager.

“Between the ages of 13 and 23, the arts were all I cared about,” Jones said in a recent interview with Crescendo.

Now, Jones is helping other passionate young artists find their way to Interlochen through his role as Director of Engagement. Jones manages a dedicated team of alumni and parent volunteers that represents Interlochen across the country and around the world.

Jones came to Interlochen in May 2019 after 12 years at Munson Healthcare, where he served as System Director of Marketing and Public Information Officer. Previously, Jones served as Director of Communications and Corporate Relations and Associate Director of Operations for Davenport University’s northern Michigan operations.

We sat down with Jones to find out more about his passion for theatre, vision for Interlochen’s Office of Engagement, and journey to northern Michigan.

Tell us a bit about your background in the arts.
In middle school and high school, I played the saxophone in marching band, symphonic band, and jazz band. I was also in my high school’s vocal ensemble, a small group that did all kinds of different community presentations.

In middle school, I got involved in acting. My first show was Lucky Lucky Hudson and the 12th Street Gang. I played Lucky Hudson (who is not the lead, despite the title), and I decided I liked it. I continued to act throughout high school and did community theatre as well. My first community theatre show was Cheaper By the Dozen. I actually went with a friend who was auditioning, but wasn’t going to audition myself. My friends kept saying, “You gotta get up and read!” So I did, and I got a lead role.

When I went to college, my initial major was radio, television, and film. I enjoyed that, but I wanted to do more theatre. I looked into the dramatic art program and thought about double majoring, but realized that shows take up so much time that it wouldn’t really be possible. I switched my major, and earned my B.A. in Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

At UNC, I was involved in a lot of things. I continued to sing as part of UNC’s Men’s Glee Club. I also worked with the stage crew and spent a little bit of time on UNC’s student television network. I was also involved with the PlayMakers Repertory Company, an on-campus professional company that sometimes allows students to perform minor roles.

The most formative thing that happened to me was when I was a junior. I was understudying for a grad student—who actually got sick! I got the call at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, went on for the 10:30 student matinee, and ended up doing four more performances.

What I remember most about that experience was a single moment on stage. It was a thrust theatre, and most of this particular scene was played at the end of the stage. I’d have times where I was supposed to look off stage and every person who was not on stage was in the vomitorium watching me. I knew all those people were rooting for me, the undergrad student. That’s one of the biggest takeaways from my theatre experience: the power of “ensemble.” That’s where I learned the value of working as part of a team, of listening and responding, depending on others as much as they depend on you.

How did you transition from theatre to marketing and engagement?
The catalyst for my career change was the fact that I got married. I started to reevaluate where my theatre career was going to go. I took a job at an agency doing telemarketing and some public relations. They were launching a new division that focused on event marketing, so I put myself in that position.

A few years later, my wife and I moved to Seattle because we wanted to—we didn’t have jobs, we barely had a place to live, we just did it. It’s a great town, and we loved it, but we quickly realized we couldn’t afford to live there. I said, “We can move, but I want to be near the water.” My wife, who was born in Traverse City, said, “I have an idea!”

We came to Michigan for a visit in July 1995, and it was gorgeous, so we moved. What I remember most about that year was that the first snow of the year was on Oct. 31, and the last one was on May 6. My first job in Traverse City was cutting Christmas trees for one of my wife’s family friends. Then I worked in banking before I moved to higher education. I was with Davenport University for nine years, then worked in healthcare for 12 years.

What drew you to Interlochen?
I’ve lived in Traverse City for almost 25 years, and I’d become familiar with Interlochen during that time. But more importantly, I saw Interlochen as a chance to come back to the arts. It’s where I started, and it’s what I was invested in for a long time. I want to invest in it again in a different way—not performing in a play or playing in the band or singing in a choir—but still as a part of the ensemble. Interlochen’s administrators are the people who are trying to advance arts education and to create a sense of advocacy for the arts in this community and in communities all around the country. We’re a resource for all those young artists who are invested in art right now, and who want to be more fully invested.

Interlochen is an incredible place with a rich history and a bright future. I am just so thankful to be a part of it.

What are some of your goals for your work here at Interlochen?
First and foremost, we have a diverse and dedicated network of Camp and Academy alumni and I want to find meaningful ways for them to continue to interact with and learn from this institution. It’s great to welcome alumni back to campus for a reunion or for special events throughout the summer, but I think we can do more to keep alumni connected to the arts, to each other, and to continuing to learn and grow as an artist. That’s why they came to Interlochen in the first place.

Second, when I was in high school and was so involved with singing, band, and theatre, I would have loved to have known about Interlochen. A big question that drives my work is, “How can I make sure that people who have that interest, desire, and commitment have the opportunity to find this place?” My major goals for the Office of Engagement are about building relationships and encouraging our alumni—both Academy and Camp—parents, and friends to be advocates on our behalf. The Engagement team can’t be everywhere to speak to every prospective student, but somebody could be there if we really build our network.

The thing that’s been amazing to me is how committed our advocates are to speaking on behalf of the institution because of what it meant to them or their child. Even those who didn’t continue in the arts have stories to tell about how Interlochen gave them the confidence, academic standing, or discipline to do something completely different. That’s a message that resonates with me, too: I’m also a product of arts education.

What are some things that you wish alumni knew about being engaged with Interlochen? Any particular opportunities you’d like to highlight?
There are a lot of opportunities to be engaged, and it’s not all about being here at Interlochen to volunteer. We have events all around the country where we value the participation of alumni, but also need their support. Right now, I’m working with Admission to find volunteers to represent us at college/recruitment fairs in all parts of the country. Audition tours are coming up. If you are interested, we can help you find a way to support the organization based on your expertise and where you are located. There are more opportunities than meet the eye.

For example, one great program is the parent enrollment committee—a group of parents of current and recent students who call newly admitted families to welcome them to Interlochen and answer any questions they might have. Having a parent call you and say “What questions can I answer?” and then being there to answer basic questions about food, safety, and what to pack or more complex questions about programs, schedule, and faculty is a huge asset to new families.

Do you have any advice for young artists? Young professionals?
Never let anyone else’s opinion of you matter more than your own. You are defined by you, not by what someone else thinks about you, your work, or your artistic merit. You’ve got to be true to yourself first to be an artist. How you grow, in any field, artistic or not, is by committing to what you believe in and finding a path forward.

What are some of your favorite plays and roles?
Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest was a favorite role, but I always wanted to be in Chekhov. We workshopped Three Sisters when I was in grad school, and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed seeing The Niceties here on campus this summer. It’s an incredibly important show, especially in this region, where we need to be pushed more on issues of race and diversity.

Want to discover more ways to engage with Interlochen? Visit https://www.interlochen.org/engagement.